Is River Linking a Mistake?

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India plans an $87 billion project to create the world's longest river. It could be a man-made environmental disaster.

In a sign that the debate is heating up over whether India should link its rivers, an activist and scholar was arrested in Tamil Nadu for releasing a book criticizing the planned move.

T. Jayaraman is the chief coordinator of the Anti-Methane Project Federation – and faces the charge of sedition for publishing a book while he was in prison, titled “Nadhigal Inaippum Aarugalai Pidingi Virkkum India’ ie ‘Interlinking of Rivers and India that Snatches and Sells Rivers’.

Following the devastating floods that displaced millions and killed thousands this year, the rhetoric over river-linking has assumed national importance. The Inter-Linking of Rivers (ILR) project has a personal sanction from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is expected to cost $87 billion.

If India goes ahead with the move, it would essentially create the world’s longest river through the construction of 30 mega-canals and 3,000 dams. These would link 14 rivers in North India and 16 in the West, Central and Southern zones, creating a river network over 12,500 kilometres long.


The idea has its root from Arthur Cotton, who pitched such a project in 1858. Half a century later, his dying words were of regret that his advice was not taken. For had the mainland rivers been linked, he believed the deadly famines of 1899-1900 that killed more than four million, would have been averted.

Independent India has yet to face such famines. But as the monsoons and aquifers fail time and again, the 600 million who are employed in agriculture are running out of options. In 2002, then president Abdul Kalam raised the possible benefits of the ILR in a speech. This later led to a Supreme Court Order on the Central Government to initiate inter-linking the rivers.

A task force was set up, and 2016 was to be the deadline for river-linking. Clearly, this has been missed by a mile and a decade.

The government promises that the ILR will irrigate 35 million hectares more and generate 34,000 megawatts of power, besides reducing the damages of future floods.

So far, the only place where the benefits should be visible is the Krishna-Godavari basin, where the two rivers were linked in 2015. The initial response to the Pattiseema Lift Irrigation Scheme (PLIS) was positive, it was called the “first and fastest such irrigation project in the country to be completed in time, without any budget enhancements,” and included in the Limca Book of Records.

But there are already murmurs of discontent. When the state was flooded by unseasonal and heavy rains this year, 200 villagers were left homeless and 600 acres of crops were inundated at the site of the PLIS, as there was no outlet for the water to recede.

Meanwhile, farmers in the Guntur district now complain of an alien fish that damages their nets and frightens away their catch. The fish, which they named Rakashi after the devil, is a member of the armoured catfish family. It’s not native to the region and appeared only after the project. Although the exact reason for its appearance is claimed as unknown, it’s a sign that river-linking will result in unforeseen consequences.

Looming disaster?

In 2012, the Supreme Court ordered a ‘Special Committee for Interlinking of Rivers’ to be set up. India is split up into Himalayan rivers and Peninsular Rivers; rivers themselves judged on whether they are surplus or deficit.

Water does not work that way. Environmentalists arguing for the natural flow of rivers say that the government’s approach that treats river water flowing into the sea as ‘wasted‘ is erroneous. This water deposits silt along its path, boosting the productivity of the very soil the ILR is supposed to rejuvenate.

Another problem is the chaos the ILR will cause. An interconnected system where some rivers are surplus and others are not is heavily reliant on the donor rivers – largely located in the Himalayas. Should climate change affect their water levels, the entire system downstream will be affected.

Another problem is displacement. An analysis conducted by the International Institute of Water Management estimates that the ILR will displace up to half a million people in the Peninsular region alone. This, notwithstanding the existing poor track record of dam-building in India; intrinsically linked to the displacement of Adivasis and loss of local livelihoods.

There are doubts over the legal dimensions of the project, as India shares many rivers with its neighbours. International laws prevent nations from executing projects that cause harm to their neighbour, and there are fears in Bangladesh that river linking will choke the flow of the Ganga’s waters.

Currently, the only thing that stands between the government and the linking of India’s rivers now is India’s much-undermined National Green Tribunal. The NGT has filed an appeal challenging the Environmental Clearance given to the Ken-Betwa project.

But the project will kick off in BJP-ruled states first before it can make headway in the rest of the country. The Ken and Betwa rivers, for which the sanction for linking has been given, will flood core areas of a tiger sanctuary. The affected areas include a prominent gharial sanctuary. Yet, the National Board for Wildlife (NBW) has cleared the project.

By and large, the prospect of river linking has raised hackles among expert communities. India’s ‘waterman’, Rajendra Singh, is called so because he brought water to drought-struck areas in Rajasthan, using only traditional techniques. For Rajendra, river-linking is a disaster.

For now, river-linking remains a political dream. Ministers are still mooting the billion-dollar question of funding the whole arrangement. But as the project raises its head every year, the concerns around it grow. The government has already conducted one experiment where it blatantly defied the ‘expert’ opinion to execute demonetisation. Could a repeat performance be planned, with ecology in lieu or economics?


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